The Renaissance Nude

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[Image: installation view, Conegliano St Sebastian (1500-2), right: Titian Venus]

One of the central parts of the Renaissance of thought and culture in Europe, starting around 1400, was acceptance of the unclothed human figure. For the previous millennium, Christianity had disapproved of depictions of the unclothed figure, decisively rejecting the heritage and practices of Mediterranean art. The engagement by philosophers, clerics, scholars and artists with the ideas of Greece and Roman opened up a willingness to use the nude as a viable and respectable part of culture. As a component of mythological and Biblical subjects in art – and anatomical study as a part of the technical training of a professional artist – the nude became a locus for both finished artistic products and the basis for artist education.

The current exhibition The Renaissance Nude currently at the Royal Academy (2 March-2 June 2019, previously at the J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles, 30 October 2018-27 January 2019) includes a selection of the vast range of material including the nude, all taken from European art made over the Early (1400-1495) and High Renaissance (1495-1520), with a handful of pieces from the Late Renaissance (1520-1550). (This review is from the catalogue.) In an age when feminist pressure and progressive education has made even politically uncommitted experts hesitant about presenting nude imagery, honest discussion and scholarship about nudity in art has become politicised. Has the influence of gender studies and New Criticism undone traditional art historiography?

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Neoplatonist thought sought to achieve a synthesis between Christian values and classical learning, despite the obvious conflicts that this entailed. Art was the one area where the two traditions could be fused with little internal contradiction. Apollo of the Greeks could become the template for Christ. The sinners in hell are naked and unprotected from demons. Adam and Eve could appear in realistic form taken from study of live models by an artist who was not simple an artisan but a thinker. It would be inaccurate to talk of a classical thaw from the Mediterranean south travelling northward from Italy to Germany and the Low Countries. The first full-length nudes of the period came from the Low Countries and were spread Southward via engravings and woodcuts, and were in part extensions of traditions that came from native schools drawing from fragments of Roman art. (The Medieval nude can be found in the numerous decorative carvings of churches.) We could say that Northern and Southern traditions developed in parallel but both looked to incorporate nudity into Biblical art and used the legitimacy of classical art to support this. This exhibition acknowledges the contribution of German, Netherlandish and Swiss artists and includes paintings by Martin Schoengauer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Memling, Jan Gossart, Albrecht Dürer, Hans Baldung (Grien) and others.

The exhibition comprises paintings, drawings, prints, manuscript illustration and sculpture (statues, bas reliefs, reliquaries, medals). Catalogue illustrations cover the sweep of Renaissance art featuring the nude, with the most notable works being by Jan Van Eyck, Leonardo, Signorelli, Mantegna, Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, Titian and others. The great diversity of forms and approaches to the nude remind us of the breadth of Renaissance visual and intellectual culture.

The human body was the locus of medieval and Renaissance science. Scholars, theologians, artists, mathematicians and architects attempted to correlate the physical body with the heavenly bodies, the dimensions of the perfect church, orders of architecture and other apparently ordered systems. The music of the spheres and the uncanny correlation between mathematics, science, arts and other systems including supposed scales or harmonies. The hidden order of life was seen to link various fields. The prints of ideal human figures designed by Vitruvius are included. They seem more derived from theory than observation. While observation sometimes suggested correlations, it often undermined assumptions of philosophers and scientists. We find in Dürer, Signorelli and Leonardo artists getting closer to reality than Vitruvius, doubtless due to their deference to reality over theory.

As the body was a product of order, so ugliness and illness were signs of disorder of earthly or divine origin. There are images of unideal figures – the elderly, the sick and others. The prime form of the nude that evokes horror and aversion is Death personified. Death and the Maiden is a great subject of the Northern European artists of this time, showing the healthy attractive nude with the morbid repulsive cadaver. This is something that only the Northern artists mastered. German carvings of grotesques are distinctly geographically specific subjects found during the 1480-1500 period. The Northern genius for the wild, bizarre and gothic always surpassed the Italian imagination, so attuned as it was the graceful, grand and beautiful. Even the inventions of Leonardo and Piero di Cosimo pale compared to Baldung and Grunewald.

A piquant instance of sex-war politics is Hans Baldung’s woodcut Aristotle and Phyllis (1513). This print illustrates the anecdote of Phyllis enslaving and humiliating Aristotle by riding him nude around a garden to demonstrate to Alexander the Great her domination of the great thinker. For society of the time, free-spirited sexually assertive women were dangerous temptresses capable of humiliating men and bringing shame on themselves and others. This finds further expression in Baldung’s many pictures of witches, where naked women are objects of desire and derision.

The print of a male bathhouse scene by Dürer is an example of homo-eroticism. It is widely conjectured that the artist was homosexual and this print suggests a sympathy or attraction for the nude male in the homosocial environment. Prints by various printmakers of German lands show full-nude figures. From the Netherlandish artists we see Adam and Eve and scenes of sinners tormented in the afterlife.

Single use only; not to be archived or passed on to third parties.

[Image: Raphael, The Three Graces (c. 1517-18), red chalk on paper, 20.3 x 25.8 cm. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019]

The exhibition reminds us the grace and charm of Piero di Cosimo, particularly in a sweet profile portrait of a young woman, presumed to be a friend or lover of the artist whom he took as his muse. Many great masterpieces could not be included in the exhibition but they are illustrated in the catalogue. There is new art to encounter in the exhibition. The Lucretia (c. 1510-5) of Conrad Meit displays the extreme emotionality that we associate with Northern art. Her face is a mask of tragic suffering, underlining the nobility of her self-sacrifice. Again we see the primacy of expression in German art.

Kren writes of the Limbourg Brothers illuminated manuscript Trés riches heures (1405-1408/9), suggesting that the Biblical scenes featuring sensual nudity were adapted to the erotic proclivities of the Duke of Berry, the commissioner of the book. Other favourite subjects that permitted depiction of female nudes were Bathsheba Bathing and Susannah and the Elders. Adam and Eve allowed an artist to demonstrate his command of anatomy of both sexes.

The mixed-sex public nude bathing in Basel, shocked an Italian visitor in 1461. Nudity was apparent in Northern and Central European tableaux vivants. Today we still have an impression of a medieval and Renaissance attitude of strict conservative attitudes towards nudity. This exhibition and catalogue demonstrates the diversity in attitudes.

It can be considered some instances of nudity in art were gratuitous and came about due to sheer pleasure and fascination. Pisanello’s Luxuria seems strikingly modern. The gamine woman, slender and unashamed, with her afro of vegetation, is like a glossy magazine photo-shoot or Instagram Goth. It was drawn around 1426.

Some depictions of religious scenes including nudity apparently went too far. There was the case of Fra Bartolommeo’s St Sebastian installed in a church which, female parishioners confessed caused them sinful thoughts. The clerics decided to sell the painting. There is a silver relief of around 1510 of Madonna and Child accompanied by St Sebastian, who is completely nude – effectively a classical nude.

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[Image: Moderno, Virgin and Child with Saints (c. 1510), cast silver with gilding, 13.9 x 10.2 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Kunstkammer]

Sandro Botticelli is represented here as an important artist of the period using the nude, most famously in The Birth of Venus. Botticelli fell under the influence of religious zealot Savonarola and subsequently supposedly burned some of his depictions of nude figures, deciding they were impious.

In the mid-Sixteenth Century the rising Lutheranism and the responsive Counter Reformation both were critical of the use of nudes in Christian image making, which effectively ended the Late Renaissance and the proliferation of nude figures in art. Although we see the nude appearing in Mannerist and Baroque, it is no longer the centre of advances or a battle ground for art during this time.

The personalisation of painting particular subjects comes to the fore in paintings of mythological, religious and symbolic content that are of specific people. One case is Jean Fouquet’s celebrated Virgin and Child (c. 1452-5). The pale Virgin and Child are surrounded by red and blue cherubs. The subjects are as white as linen, unsullied, exquisite as porcelain. The Virgin’s nursing breast is exposed, released from her tight corset. She is apparently based upon the lover of the donor, King Charles VII, a woman named Agnès Sorel. Sorel had died in 1450, at the age of about 27, before the painting was made. Thus the painting was religious but based upon a profane love; for the donor, viewing the painting would have combined the devotion of worship and the pleasure of the erotic and would have been a pleasure of seeing a close companion to the level of the mother of God and a sensation of deep loss and grief. Inadvertently, this painting is an embodiment of the myriad functions and interpretations of art that were current in the Renaissance period.

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[Image: Titian, Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) (c. 1520), oil on canvas, 75.8 x 57.6 cm. National Galleries of Scotland. Accepted in lieu of Inheritance Tax by HM Government (hybrid arrangement) and allocated to the Scottish National Gallery, with additional funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), and the Scottish Executive, 2003]

The Renaissance Nude tells of the many reasons for the existence of imagery of the nude – didactic and sensual, moral and licentious, realistic and idealised – and draws on new technical research and historical data. The catalogue essays and entries on individual exhibited items balance detail and general overview. The illustrations are large and the production quality is excellent. This catalogue makes an intelligent and comprehensive introduction to the various roles of the nude in Renaissance art.

We can be relieved that we have escaped an exhibition based on the gender politics of our age. Although the writers are aware and informed about discussions regarding gender and sexual studies (and the semiological readings of recent decades), they wisely elected to elucidate the attitudes and theories of the Renaissance rather than impose their views. Thus they give us an informed basic understanding of why a picture may have come into existence and how it was seen at the time, leaving us to interpret ourselves how we wish to understand it today. In that respect, the curators have credited us with discernment and sophistication equivalent that of the artists, writers and thinkers presented in this exhibition and catalogue.

 

 

Thomas Kren (ed.), The Renaissance Nude, Getty Publications, November 2018, cloth hardback, illus., $65/£48, 432pp, 273 col. illus., ISBN 978 1 60606 584 6

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

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Italian Chiaroscuro Woodcuts

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[Image: Andrea Andreani, after Giovanni Fortuna (?), A Skull, c. 1588, chiaroscuro woodcut from 5 blocks in light brown, light gray, medium gray, dark gray, and black, 11 × 13 1/4 in., The British Museum, London, 1861,0518.199, photo © 2018 The Trustees of the British Museum]

 

In 1516 Ugo da Carpi petitioned the Venetian senate for an exclusive privilege to produce chiaroscuro woodcuts by a method over which he claimed rights. He would later receive the same privilege from the pope, with the threat of excommunication for anyone infringing his privilege, equivalent to a patent. The system of printing was so noteworthy that Vasari described it at length in his Lives of the Artists. Yet evidence shows that Ugo had not invented anything. Hans Burgkmair produced chiaroscuro woodcuts in Augsburg at least as early as 1508. It seems Ugo himself was using another artist’s system.

This catalogue accompanies the current exhibition The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy (3 June-3 September 2018, Los Angeles County Museum; touring to National Gallery of Art, Washington, 14 October 2018-10 January 2019). While this could be viewed as a purely art-historical exhibition, it could also be considered an assessment of a cutting-edge reprographic technology developed during the Renaissance.

Chiaroscuro woodcuts were colour prints made via the relief method, where the raised surface of a wooden block was cut and inked then impressed on a sheet of paper. This was done with multiple blocks with different designs each inked a distinct colour. The block designs ranged from those giving a base colour and highlights, ones with areas of tone to ones with line drawing. Together these different layers formed a unified composition somewhat akin to a line-and-wash ink drawing or a drawing in line and white highlight on colour paper. The broad areas of tone meant forms could be built using distribution of shadows and – to a very limited extend – shading, thus they were called chiaroscuro (Italian “light-dark”).

It was time-consuming to produce the wooden blocks and to print them. Aligning the blocks (called registration) was achieved by various means but none of those were easy or flawless. The specialist skills and effort required to proof chiaroscuro woodcuts meant that there were a limited number of printers capable of producing editions. Although over 200 Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts were produced before the style fell out of fashion, this represents only a small fraction of prints produced over this period. The technique never became common and once the skills needed to cut and print the blocks were lost, the chiaroscuro woodcut became a moribund medium.

The chiaroscuro woodcut was used not to produce a full range of colour (separately and by over layering of transparent inks) but to create pictures of tone using muted colour. The makers chose to evoke and reproduce tonal drawings, ink-wash drawings or grisaille paintings. The rise of this type of print was partly spurred by the market for tonal drawings on tinted paper, which was popular in the German states, hence Burgkmair pioneering the technique north of the Alps. It seems Ugo had studied one of these prints and deduced the process in 1515 or 1516 before petitioning the Venetian state for a privilege.

Designers, block-cutters and printers belonged to different guilds and often worked in different workshops. Anthony Griffiths suggests in his essay that there was a professional division that meant that multicolour prints were not produced by the chiaroscuro method. There existed a guild for colourists of woodcut prints. They painted line prints with water-based paint. These were mass-market and often crudely made devotional images which were sold cheaply. As few of these survive – due to casual treatment and an absence of connoisseur interest in collecting them – nowadays we overlook these prints. Griffiths suggests that the guild of print colourists may have actively opposed the introduction of multicolour prints but felt that tonal prints presented no competition. Thus Europe never developed the full-colour woodblock print that was so spectacularly perfected in Japan.

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[Image: Ugo da Carpi, after Titian, Saint Jerome, c. 1516, chiaroscuro woodcut from 2 blocks in gray-brown and black, 6 1/8 × 3 3/4 in., The British Museum, London, 1860,0414.100, photo © 2018 The Trustees of the British Museum]

The exhibition opens with a print by Ugo da Carpi (c. 1468/70-1532) from a drawing by Titian. Ugo and many of the printmakers who followed used designs from painters, with or without their permission. Saint Jerome (c. 1516) is modest in size and hardly more than a fragment of larger composition, but it is an effective translation of Titian’s vigorous curving hatching and emotional expressiveness. When Ugo moved from Venice to Rome he began to work with Raphael, mostly indirectly it seems. He used Marcantonio Raimondi’s engravings for some designs, as in the case of his adaptation of The Massacre of the Innocents.

Ugo and Antonio da Trenta (fl. c.1527-1540s) both worked with Parmigianino, turning his Mannerist compositions with Madonnas with extended necks into effective prints. According to Vasari, Parmigianino’s drawings and printing blocks were stolen by Antonio da Trento and although he later recovered the blocks, he never saw his drawings again. One drawing by Parmigianino is exhibited with its printed version (Nude Man seen from behind (Narcissus) (c. 1527/30)), which allows us to compare a rare surviving source with a print. The cutting of blocks led to the destruction or discarding of many drawings.

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[Image: Antonio da Trento, after Parmigianino, Nude Man Seen from Behind (Narcissus), c. 1527–30, chiaroscuro woodcut from 2 blocks in green and black, 11 1/4 × 7 in., Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gray Collection of Engravings Fund, G7500, photo: Imaging Department © 2018 President and Fellows of Harvard College]

Domenico Beccafumi (1484/86-1551) was exceptional among chiaroscuro-woodcut printmakers in that he was a professional painter who not only designed prints but also cut the blocks and printed proofs personally. His restless experimentation can be seen in the varied inking. There are examples of engraved intaglio plates being printed over tonal designs made with relief woodcut blocks, of which Beccafumi’s Three Male Nudes (River Gods) (c. 1540s) is one. His greatest achievements are a suite of large Apostles, which have the grandeur of statues. Indeed, these are thought to relate to a sculptural project Beccafumi planned but never executed. The boldness of the designs, variety of mark making, strong colours and the force of the images make these some of the best prints produced in the chiaroscuro-woodcut technique.

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[Image: Domenico Beccafumi,Saint Philip, c. 1540s, chiaroscuro woodcut from 3 blocks in light red, medium red, and black, 15 5/8 × 8 1/2 in., Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC, FP-XVI-B388, no. 41 (B size), photo courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC]

Following a selection of various Italian printmakers, the exhibition concludes with the art of Andrea Andreani (c.1580-1610), who brought Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts to a dazzling climax. The clarity and complexity of his designs are exceptional, particularly as seen in the Washington impression of Allegory of Virtue (1585) and reproductions of Giambologna’s sculpture Rape of a Sabine (c. 1583-4). Two prints of skulls, an allegory of death and a print of a woman contemplating a skull attest to the compulsion that vanitas and death exerted over Andreani.

The catalogue includes essays covering the production of prints and the market for them. Essays situate chiaroscuro woodcuts in the overall print production of the time and explain some of the motivation behind the brief flourishing of the chiaroscuro woodcut in Sixteenth Century Northern Italy. Authors analyse the meaning of the prints, authorship and technical details, explaining how the blocks were reprinted, repaired and altered over their lifetimes. Other proofs are illustrated to demonstrate different choices of ink or the effects of ageing. Illustrated are variant states of prints and drawings, paintings and sculptures that served as sources. New scholarship has cleared up some matters of attribution and dating and illuminated issues which have not yet been clarified. A section on watermarks includes data that has helped to date these (usually undated) prints. The only shortcoming of the section on watermarks was that photographs were not accompanied by line drawings of the marks. Line illustrations would be helpful to scholars seeking to identify marks.

A particularly useful section in the catalogue shows experiments with printing. Blocks were cut to conform to an actual Italian design and printed using a variety of papers, inks, binders and so forth. The close-up photographs and technical analysis describe the causes of problems and how differing printing practices affected the production of prints. Paper was used dry or moistened, showing how the even reception of ink on moist paper had to be balanced against the issue of shrinkage, which made registration of plates imperfect. Overprinting on wet or dry ink alter how inks interact and adhere. Such data demonstrates the many decisions printers and cutters had to make to achieve satisfactory results.

The design and production qualities of this book are exceptional. The care and thought put into every aspect of this book make it a great pleasure to consult and handle, quite aside from the valuable content.

 

Naoko Takahatake (ed.), The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy, Prestel, 2018, hardback, 288pp, 192 col. illus., $60/£45, ISBN 978 3 7913 5739 3

© 2018 Alexander Adams